This month we are launching Q&R’s Big Question. We will be asking leaders in the communications sector to answer one big question. 

Chuffed to introduce our first leader; Steve Earl, a leading integrated communications expert with decades of agency leadership expertise, he joined APCO Worldwide as managing director in July 2019.  

We asked Steve:  

What’s your advice when selling your business? 

Selling your business: why the why matters 

One of the questions I found I rarely got asked when I owned my own business was why I started it in the first place.

It’s something that I’ve always asked agency founders in discussions about potential mergers and acquisitions, but when I and my co-founder sold our firm we were largely asked why sell now, and why to that acquirer, rather than about the fundamental reason we got the thing rolling in the first place.  

When I’ve been asked the question, people have often been a bit taken aback by the response: I started it because I hoped to clear my mortgage within 10 years. It’s a pretty pragmatic and fairly unemotional rationale, but when we started the agency I’d just turned 25 and bought a flat, so it seemed like a sensible horizon.  

I wasn’t planning world domination (that’ll come later..), had no plans to bequeath it to family decades in the future, and knew it was a risky venture despite the bullish economy of the late 90s. 

The way I saw it, the reason I’d taken the plunge was that rather than a purely salaried agency or in-house role, I may as well be brave and see if I could make a bit of cash on top, in time. And because I’m a fairly focused individual, concentrating on trying to clear the recent debt pile I’d taken on seemed the right target. 

As I reflect on it more than 20 years later, that reason why still holds true. I did sell those shares, eight years later, and cleared off the mortgage. Job done.

But as I’ve asked others the question about why they started their companies, it has made me think that there’s more to the why than that one-dimensional reason. And that missing piece is the kind of thing I sometimes get as an answer from others: because I loved the job too, and had a vision of doing something different to shake things up in the market, in a gentle way, while trying to do well for myself at the same time.   

When I say I loved the job, I mean that I loved the art and science of telling stories. I enjoy the media environment, the counsel we have to give, the challenge of devising shrewd strategy, and the flow of ideas it all produces. For me, on reflection, the why wasn’t just a simple pragmatic answer. The reality was I decided to start the firm because I loved the world of storytelling, because at heart I’m a nosy git who enjoys what ‘telling tales’ can achieve. We wanted to make our mark and offer an alternative by applying more experienced brainpower to stories. If doing that could bag me a property then more’s the better was my view. 

I’m older, and hopefully a tiny bit wiser. Asking people why has made me understand my motivations more clearly. 

What’s the conclusion then, and what’s my advice? I guess it’s that we can all try to look deeper at the why question, as our answer is likely a combination of aspiration, passion and (in my case) a healthy dollop of pragmatism. 


Steve Earl, Managing Director, APCO Worldwide